Arizona Cancer Center researcher receives nearly $1 million for colon cancer prevention study

Jesse Martinez, PhD
Jesse Martinez, PhD

Arizona Cancer Center scientist Jesse Martinez, PhD, has been awarded a $993,584 grant from the National Cancer Institute to research chemoprevention of colon cancer.

The four-year grant will enable him to study the mechanisms of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), an acid found in bile that may play a role in preventing colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is third most common cancer in both men and women and accounts for almost nine percent of all cancer deaths in America.

UDCA is naturally occurring in humans and is already used in medicine to help eradicate gallstones. UDCA showed promise in a previous Arizona Cancer Center study that it could also be used as a chemopreventative agent. Martinez said UDCA piqued his interest because it appears that it can actually block the immortality of tumor cells and therefore shorten a tumor’s lifespan.

“If we can understand how the bile acid is actually causing these tumor cells to grow old and die when they wouldn’t normally, that could lead to a better understanding of how tumors develop in the first place,” said Martinez, an Arizona Cancer Center member and University of Arizona professor of cell biology and anatomy.

By the end of the study, he hopes to understand how UDCA works at the molecular level. He hypothesizes that it acts at the cell membrane and changes the way a cell grows. “If that’s true,” he said, “it points to a new target for not only prevention, but also therapy.”

To determine if UDCA could really be a new avenue for prevention and treatment of colon cancer, Martinez will also compare the functions of UDCA in the cell culture his lab has created with the functions of UDCA in humans who received the drug orally. If they are working the same way, he says, “that gives us confidence in moving forward to developing an approach to interfere with that mechanism.”

The roots of this research lie in ancient Chinese medicine, said Martinez. For thousands of years, the Chinese used bear gallbladders – of which UDCA is a major component – for medicinal purposes. The acid is now created synthetically and is readily available for researchers.